From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 29, 2001*: Constantly Connected

I haven't checked in ages, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that Internet Service Providers in Israel no longer offer ten hour a month packages. The internet has become an integral part of our lives, and thus even in households where all that people do on the internet is check their e-mail a couple of times a week (and probably wonder why nobody writes them) people are still willing to pay for unlimited internet access. I suppose that in a culture where nobody thinks twice about using a cellular phone (and even paying just to have it available) they also figure that having the internet available to them, even if they hardly use it, is simply one more aspect of our technological lives.

I can't complain. On the whole I've had unlimited connection - more than I really need. At my various places of work and study over the years I've been continually online, and my connections from home have also been of the sort that didn't demand that I keep my eye on the clock in order to make sure that I wasn't going over the number of hours my account permitted. Still, I was frugal, if not because of economics, then for a much more banal reason: we only had one phone in the house, and it was important to leave the phone open at prime hours because someone might be trying to reach us.

I won't go so far as to claim that unlimited internet access, and a very high speed modem, are the technological equivalent of the holy grail, but they certainly presented themselves to the online addict as a goal to be achieved. But I suppose that it shouldn't come as a surprise that when the goal is ultimately reached, we discover that it's no longer the object of desire it once was. Use is a function of access, but it also seems to follow a rather predictable curve. There seems to be something that might be called the law of the evolution of internet use. It's less a law of nature than a snapshot of a cumulative reality, but even so, there's seems to be more than a grain of truth in it. And for the last couple of months I've been a good example of its veracity.

After about five years of dreaming of having a dedicated phone line just for our internet connection (and in that way have a phone line constantly open for phone calls), that dream was finally realized about two months ago. A high speed connection, similar to a cable model, was installed in our home, and the connection went straight to the computer, leaving our phone line open. First and foremost this meant that I was able to open our internet connection even when I was expecting a phone call, or even when we had to dial out. It was a bit of a strange sensation: the computer was connected, but we were also talking on the phone. But the real difference took effect when I realized that I was able to leave the computer on, and the internet connection open, pretty much all the time. Among other things, this meant that I could download large files without having to think about how long they might take to download (and of course our new connection was about five times faster than before, so files downloaded faster as well). Then it became clear that I no longer had to say "I'm going online for five minutes just to check mail". Instead I could leave my mail program open throughout the entire evening, and see mail arrive almost in real time.

As was to be expected, however, my newly acquired connection corresponded rather precisely with a period of decreased internet use. I was now able to leave the connection open throughout the evening, but there was close to no reason to do so. I really didn't need the immediacy that a continually open connection afforded me, and leaving my ICQ open only meant getting random chat messages which I'd long ago tired of. On the whole I could wait to check mail, and I felt no pressing urge to surf over to any particular site to see what it had to offer. One benefit was that I could do a bit of web-surfing with the boys at a logical time in the evening, but though they found it interesting ("this is what Abba does for a living?"), it wasn't all that attractive to them (they were more than happy that the computer was available for a game), and I frankly didn't want to encourage them too much.

The true benefit of that connection would be the ability to work from home. With a fast and dedicated connection, and an open phone line, there should have been no problem staying home and doing whatever it is that I get paid for to sit at my desk at work and do. Yet as has become clearer and clearer, it's less a question of the technology, than of the atmosphere. Sending a digital message to someone twenty paces away has certain advantages - digitality allows us to act on what's been sent with a few clicks, rather than having to translate it into a different, usable medium. But it's still nice to get up from your desk every so often just to see someone face to face. Working from home can be productive on many levels, but it's still lacking on the basic level of the necessary inter-personal contact required to actually develop something worthwhile. So when I finally am able to leave my internet connection open throughout the day (or evening, or both), I find that I make use of that possibility much less than I expected.

And one more problem. Having my new connection installed corresponded by chance with a number of computer problems. It was hard to leave the connection open if the computer was rather consistently turning itself off. It's clear that in addition to a new connection a new computer wouldn't hurt either, but without a bit of outside help that doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Communications & Computers In Education - Main Page